A homecoming long overdue
Richard Jenkins spent just seven months in the jungles of Vietnam. He's spent 44 years coping with the aftermath.
The 66-year-old Newport man returned to Minnesota in 1966, physically hurt after meeting a jungle booby trap two months into his tour. And he came back emotionally wounded, too, the unseen after effects of a vicious war and an American homecoming that left him and other veterans feeling rejected and abandoned.
"A chunk," Jenkins says, "was ripped from our soul."
Next week, he hopes to help patch that hole for thousands of Minnesota veterans of that era like him.
Jenkins -- a Purple Heart Medal recipient for his battlefield wounds and a district commander with the Military Order of the Purple Heart -- has spearheaded an effort to publicly honor Minnesota's Vietnam veterans. His dream, two years in the making, comes true on June 13 at the Minnesota Honors Vietnam-Era Veterans event that is his brainchild.
It's the welcome home, Jenkins says, he and his fellow veterans never got.
The celebration will begin with a prayer service at 9 a.m., followed by a Minnesota Medal of Honor plaque dedication, a remembrance ceremony, a roll call of Minnesotans killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War, a speech from Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and live entertainment beginning at 4:30 p.m. Admission is free.
The idea struck him two years ago, Jenkins -- an ordained minister -- says, a message from God that told him a welcome home, even four decades after the fact, was needed. But as he floated the idea and began to work on making his vision into a reality he encountered opposition.
"A lot of veterans want nothing to do with veterans groups," he said.
Some were bitter -- too little, too late, Jenkins was told. Some just wanted to forget, to keep the past in the past.
But he kept plugging away, preaching the cathartic benefits of an event celebrating Vietnam-era vets in a way he feels is needed.
He knows next weekend's event will drawa crowd. He knows there will be tears and pain, and, he hopes, healing.
"This will be a legacy that will never be forgotten," Jenkins said. "This is a time for healing. (It's) a very emotional time."
He knows about the pain, the anger and the bitterness -- he spent almost 40 years with it bottled inside.
Jenkins was drafted into the army in 1964, just three years out of a Kansas City, Kan., high school, and newly married. He considered heading to Canada as thousands of draftees did, but chose instead to deploy, eventually serving as a point man during dangerous seek and destroy missions through thick Vietnamese jungles.
His position was a dangerous one: Jenkins led the forays through the almost impenetrable vegetation, machete in one hand, pistol in the other, grenade launcher on his back. He was the first to catch sniper fire, and with little defense.
But he survived, and arrived back home wracked with survivor's guilt -- 27 of his close comrades were killed.
"And I knew all of them," he said.
But, since he began coming to terms with his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder -- an anxiety disorder that can afflict people exposed to traumatic events like war -- about nine years ago, Jenkins has been trying to help others who have walked in his shoes. He's tried to help others who never grieved, never recovered, after finding themselves fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia, then caught up in the turbulent times that awaited them back home.
"We're taught to be macho, tough, to be a man," Jenkins said recently, his pin-bedecked Vietnam veterans hat laid carefully next to him on a nearby table. "But everyone has a breaking point, a tolerance, a threshold for pain. And you can only bundle it for so long."
Next weekend's ceremony at the Capitol is another chance to let that pain go.
"Our souls need healing," Jenkins said. "We need healing."
If you go:
What: Minnesota Honors Vietnam Era Veterans
When: Begins at 9 a.m., Saturday, June 13
Where: Minnesota State Capitol grounds, St. Paul
Why? Newport resident, Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Richard Jenkins is spearheading an event to honor Vietnam era veterans with a formal ceremony in St. Paul. A prayer service will begin the day, and will also feature a missing and killed in action roll call and speech from Gov. Tim Pawlenty. A replica of the National Vietnam Memorial will be on display. For more information and a detailed schedule, go to www.swcbulletin.com for a link to the event's Web site.